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2003 Messier marathon

Bob Havner


The San Jose Astronomical Association will be hosting the 2003 Messier marathon on March 29/30 at Henry Coe State Park. The Messier marathon as an attempt to find 109 of the Messier objects in one night! French comet hunter Charles Messier created the catalog to identify objects that could be mistaken for comets. Today's list represents 110 of the most famous deep sky objects in the night sky. While being a favorite goal of amateur astronomers to complete over time, late March offers an opportunity to find 109 of the Messier objects in a single night.

Don Machholz brought the Messier marathon to the SJAA with an article titled "Messier marathon" in the September 1978 SJAA newsletter. In the article, he invited members to join him on Loma Prieta mountain in March for the event. Using star atlases, a planisphere, and his own comet hunting records, Don developed the observing order, or search sequence, the same list used by most marathoners to this day.

The first San Jose Astronomical Association Messier marathons were held on the nights of March 23/24, 24/25, 30/31 and March 31/April 1, 1979. About fifty club members turned out at these events. Of those, about a dozen participated in the actual marathon. On March 30/31 Don Machholz and Gerry Rattley found 108 objects each, missing only M74 and M33! Amazingly on the night of March 12/13 1980 Don successfully found all 109 objects without star charts, relying only on search instructions he previously recorded on cassette tapes!

The 2003 Messier marathon will be held at the overflow parking area at Henry Coe. Directions can be found in the box on page 2, or at Although not required, we recommend pairing up with someone as a way of verifying observations. Observing lists will be available at the site. There will be 3 lists: a short list of bright, easy to find objects for novice astronomers, a half list for those who would rather not make it an all nighter, and the long list for you die-hard marathoners.

There are two books written by SJAA members on the subject of the Messier marathon. Don Machholz's booklet, The Messier Marathon Observer's Guide, gives a detailed search sequence, finder charts, and star hopping information. It also points out that less complete Messier marathons may be run at every time in the year. Robert Garfinkle's book, Star-Hopping; Your Visa to Viewing the Universe (Cambridge University Press, 1994, 1997) has a chapter with instructions and the list for doing a Messier marathon. Copies of Don Machholz's The Messier Marathon Observer's Guide will be for sale at the March 15 general meeting and at the marathon (while supplies last) for $10.00.

Also check out the SEDS Messier page They have many helpful links to images and lists.

You will want to have a planisphere and a good star atlas, preferably plastic or plastic coated, to locate constellations and for star hopping to the objects. As always, come prepared for cold weather and a long night; bring plenty of warm clothing and hot drinks.

This is a great time for those that are new to astronomy to be introduced to the deep sky. Don't expect to get them all if this is your first time, just have a good time and enjoy the ones you do find. You will get a good start on completing your own Messier list.

Come out to Henry Coe with us for a night of astronomy and start (or perhaps finish) your Messier list.

Messier marathon Henry Coe State Park. March 29, 2002 There is a $2.00 per vehicle night use fee.


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